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Teens Should Not Face Criminal Sanctions For “Sexting”

Four suburban Chicago teenagers are facing felony child pornography charges after posting a video of themselves having sex on Twitter. Everyone involved apparently agreed to take part, but making and distributing a video that depicts sex among minors can still be prosecuted as a child pornography offense, even when the children themselves are the ones making and distributing the video. The charges raise questions as to whether it makes sense to subject teens who transmit sexually explicit communications of themselves — a relatively common practice in the Internet environment — to criminal sanctions.

According to Chicago’s ABC affiliate, three teen boys (ages 14, 15 and 16) and a 15-year-old girl posted the video of their sexual activities to Twitter. The four teens were arrested on child pornography charges after the female participant’s mother alerted police to the video. Potential sentences include lifetime registration as sex offenders, and juvenile detention until the teens turn 21. The local police chief told reporters that the child pornography charge is “making a strong statement and I think it’s important to do so to send the message to others: that kids shouldn’t be involved in this type of behavior and hopefully this will serve as a deterrent.”

According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20% of teens “have sent [or] posted nude or semi-nude pictures of videos of themselves.” Some of these teens have faced legal action: in 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a misdemeanor conviction of an 18-year-old who sent a photo of his penis to a female classmate after she jokingly requested it. Furthermore, a teenage couple in Florida were charged under child pornography laws for sending one another sexually explicit photos. Although those teens never shared the photos with a third party, a Florida appeals court upheld the charges against the 16-year-old female involved.

At least 20 states have updated their laws in response to these new realities, including Illinois: the prosecutors in this case could have charged the four Chicago-area teens under the Illinois youth “sexting” law, which lists counseling and community service as potential punishments. However, the bill also explicitly allows for prosecution of the same activities as child pornography, leaving prosecutors with the harsh option they’ve chosen here.

Charging teens as child pornographers does little to address the intention of child pronography laws, to stop the abuse and exploitation of children, and instead subjects teens to lifelong consequences including barriers to education, employment, and housing. That’s not to mention the stigma attached to being a registered sex offender. Even a misdemeanor charge can force teens to suffer through traumatizing arrest, and potential stigma.

The great irony here is that far from being perpetrators, teens who have sexted in these high-publicity cases are better understood as victims of their own foolishness. It is they who face intense public humiliation. As the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio argues, “teens need to be taught responsible behavior, and how to respect their own and others’ privacy. But that should be done by education, not threatening young people with criminal charges.”

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